A new pilot.
It’s a while before she arrives on Serenity. A while before they stop on Beaumonde and Mal decides the time has come for a new pilot.
Her hair is electric blue and there are round hoverpilot’s goggles that never seem to leave the top of her head. She wanders onto the ship by accident, tagged onto what she'd thought was a tour of the docks.
The crew pick her out immediately, all of them, without conferring.
She is exactly what they need.
Nina is however, a ruttin' good pilot.
She pokes around the bridge for a good hour, frowning in bemusement at the dinosaurs that no one has moved, that are gathering dust. Her green sheepskin jacket takes up residence on the back of the left-hand pilot’s chair. One of the levers gains a family of hair bands "just in case". She feels around under the desk, jokes to herself about looking for chewing gum (she’s flown ships where it’s really not a joke, and ships where she's found things a lot worse than gum). She crawls around on the ground for a while, prying open the flooring, looking for a connection that doesn’t quite exist.
She takes the job, and quickly gets caught up in one of their first real fed chases in what feels like years without him.
Slowly the humour seeps in. It’s never what you’d call comfortable. They have known her long enough by the time they notice how similar her sense of humour is to his not to make that comparison, but it’s difficult, and complicated, and though they only ever talk about him quietly and in small groups without Zoe in, she builds up, in time, all the knowledge she needs about this ‘Wash’ character to do her job properly. She’s not just the pilot, she’s part of the crew, and that brings a far heavier responsibility than flying them round the 'verse ever could.
What she learns is this. He was the pilot. He was Zoe’s husband. He was funny. They loved him. He once had a terrible moustache.
She has earned the title of pilot in her own right, and they’re a hard crew to impress, and so the jokes keep coming. Even Zoe, expecting a fatherless baby that she sometimes - on the long, lonely nights when the grief that she keeps locked away starts to force its way out - wishes would never come, laughs occasionally - and that can only be a good thing.
She has been with them for just a few months when it begins.
First is the name. They’d stopped at an APS franchise in New Cardiff to pick up the post, and though her signature is totally illegible it sure as hell don’t say Nina, and this freaks the crew to no end when they notice. She laughs at their suspicion and drawn weapons. It takes a few minutes of unstoppable, unexpectedly high-pitched giggling before she, panting, reassures them that her real name is awful, repulsive, sounds like the name of a centuries-old, smelly, broken gorram corset, and she’d left it behind a long time ago. Surnames don't matter a whole lot out here, and they all agree never to mention her shee-niou first name ever again. It lingers on in a disgusting way.
A few nights later, they start talking about family. She talks about how much younger she was than her four older brothers. How three had died (one for the independents, one alliance, and one caught in crossfire) in the war. How the other left home as soon as the smoke cleared , and how she hadn’t heard from him since he’d flown off through the smog of her homeworld- and that was a fair few years ago now. The only contact they’d had since was one garbled, slurred voice recording about geese - she’d never quite managed to work that one out - and there’d been no return address.
But it isn’t until Zoe’s baby is finally born that it finally hits her.
She is up in the bridge, dozing off slightly after the stress of flying them all off Ariel, where the hospital had got wind of who the motley bunch in the waiting room really were. They had very understandably, very courteously sent a few feds to kindly escort them off the planet. At speed. For several hours.
Somewhat less understandably this had also involved ejecting a partially-dilated and loudly cussing Zoe from the hospital.
But eventually they’d got away. It had been incredibly tense, and during that time she hadn’t left her seat. Her knuckles had turned white, blisters beginning to form on her palms from gripping the controls so tightly and for so long.
Now, the sweat wiped from her forehead, hands seizing up in claw shapes, goggles sliding wonkily down her face, hair a tangled blue mess, she was violently woken from her rest by the crackling of a radio followed by Kaylee’s excited squeal of ‘It’s a girl!’.
‘Has this mysterious girl got a name?’ She blearily replied.
Mal grabbed the radio from Kaylee’s hands.
‘Name’s Emma. Emma Washburne.’ He couldn’t keep the grin off his face as he looked down at Zoe and the tiny, squirming bundle, who was currently waving her arms to try and push away Jayne’s unexpected gift of a tiny plastic dinosaur.
Nina however, was stood stock still in the bridge, having launched out of her chair so hard and so fast she had hit her head on the ceiling, releasing a long, eloquently varied string of curses into the infirmary.
‘Hey, tiny gorram ears down here, watch your mouth!’ Mal replied from the infirmary.
‘Uh huh…W-…Uh-…Um-…What er-What did you say the baby’s name was?’
‘Emma Washburne.’ Mal’s face crinkled with confusion at her reaction, but his joy was unperturbed. ‘Kinda funny though, Zoe, you see, she was tryna' be funny, told us she was gonna name her Hoban, after Wash…’
The radio cut out as Nina dropped it to the floor, her whole body shaking as she’s hit suddenly, knocked off her feet by a tidal wave of memories. A surge of the brother who stayed behind, who seemed like he would never leave them all until the day he suddenly did. The brother she’d followed into the sky when he became her final piece of family. Who she had stopped looking for when she realised how big the 'verse really was, how much there was to see, to experience, to feel. The brother she’d distanced herself from because there were so many feelings. She’d loved him, but he’d left her. He’d been all she had left, but she’d found so much more out there. She’d stopped looking, and that made her feel so gorram guilty. But what had she been meant to do, just walk onto a random ship and find him?
She fell down to the floor with the weight of the painful, painful irony.
Half an hour later, when she still hasn’t appeared in the infirmary to welcome the now-sleeping infant, and Zoe is passed out from the exhaustion anyway, Mal heads on up to the bridge to find out what’s amiss.
It’s here that he finds his pilot crouched in the corner, face wet with tears and a little blotchy, clutching one of the dinosaurs she had begun to periodically clean of the dust that appeared on them from her first day on the ship to her chest, out of an inexplicable respect for her predecessor she had known so little about that now so suddenly made a horrible kind of sense.
When he kneels down next to her, he hears her whisper ‘I never took him for the marryin' kind’.
‘What was that?’ He asks, shocked and confused.
She looks him dead in the eyes and replies ‘I’m a gorram aunt, Mal’.
Neither of them is quite able to stand again until Simon wanders in looking for Mal, sees them both sat there, Nina in a tight little ball and Mal with his legs out in front, against Wash’s pilot deck, silent as the black, tries to say something, and then rushes back out to get Kaylee.
Nina makes a ruttin good aunt.